Sunday, November 20, 2016
Homily for The Last Sunday of the Church Year (Sunday of the Fulfillment)
Matthew 25:1-13; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Isaiah 65:17-25
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Our Old Testament lesson today is pure Gospel. The Prophet foretells a new heaven and a new earth in which there is no inequity or strife, weeping or sorrow, and no more death. Now, who wouldn’t want that? Who wouldn’t do anything they could to obtain it? Who wouldn’t pray earnestly for that day and kingdom to quickly come? People like you and me, that’s who. Oh, sure, we talk about the promised kingdom of heaven in wistful and dreamy ways, imagining it not unlike the Edenic artwork on the Jehovah’s Witness’ Watchtower literature sitting on our coffee tables, but do we really believe in it? Do we really believe it will come soon? Do we really even want it to come, particularly if it means giving up and losing what we have now? Perhaps we have become a bit too content and complacent in our lives and in this world, which are passing way, which are stored up for fire on the Last Day?
You are not alone in feeling this way. Indeed, Christians, and Messianic Jews before them, have felt this way ever since Jesus began His ministry of teaching and miracles. His disciples and the crowds all thought He was the promised Messianic King who had come to establish God’s kingdom on earth now. However, when He failed to lead the people in uprising against their Roman occupiers, when He failed to set them free from tyranny and oppression, when He failed to restore worldly glory to Israel and reestablish David’s throne, the vast majority rejected Him and cried out for His blood. He was not the kind of king they were looking for. And, after He had been tried, convicted, condemned, crucified, and buried, they thought that was that. No one expected Him to rise from the dead. The women came to the tomb Sunday morning in order to finish the job of preparing a dead body for burial. The disciples gathered in fear and grief behind closed doors awaiting their own arrest, trial, and conviction at the hands of the Jewish Council. They, like us today, would prefer that the LORD make this present world better and more comfortable, release us from suffering and sorrow, war and bloodshed, disease and death. However, the LORD did not promise to make a paradise on earth again, but He promised to create a new heaven and a new earth, and that this old world that we both hate and love will be burned with fire and dissolve. Jesus said, “Behold, I make all things new.” He wasn’t kidding. Believe it and receive it for Jesus’ sake.
In many ways, that is what the end of the Church Year and the beginning of the new Church Year with Advent is all about – watching, waiting in patient hope and expectation, and being prepared for the day of Jesus’ coming, the Last Day, the end of this world and the beginning of the new heavens and earth that will not fade away. That is what the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins is all about. Jesus told this parable to His disciples during the week of His Passion, during Holy Week before His betrayal and arrest. Jesus told them this parable so that they would be prepared for His delay in returning, by human standards. After Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension, the disciples were all on board with Jesus. Nevertheless, they expected His prophesied return to come quickly. That is why the first Christians sold all their possessions and put them in a community chest to care for those who could not care for themselves. That is why they shared all things in common. It’s not that they were socialists or communists, but they sincerely believed that they wouldn’t need such worldly and material things much longer, for Jesus would be coming soon ushering in His new Kingdom. That’s why Jesus told them, and us, this parable. He was encouraging us, exhorting us, even warning us to not grow weary in our waiting and watching, for He is coming soon – though, to the LORD a day may be as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.
The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins is yet another Parable of the Kingdom. This time, the Kingdom of Heaven is like “ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the Bridegroom.” As in the other parables of the kingdom, the virgins were all invited, they were all in, they were all going to the wedding feast. However, Jesus tells us that, though they were all invited, though they were all in, “five of them were foolish, and five were wise.” The difference between the wise and the foolish virgins, Jesus says, was that the wise brought extra oil with them. Already, the oil is a matter of significance. At the beginning of the parable, all ten virgins have oil in their lamps. All seems well and good – and it is! However, then comes the crux of the parable: The Bridegroom is delayed. There they stand, all ten of the virgins, lamps filled with oil, burning brightly, and the Bridegroom hasn’t come. They were all ready to enter the Wedding Hall and partake of the Feast, but now they have to wait. Surely this is how the disciples and the first Christians felt following Jesus’ Ascension and Pentecost. They were full of anticipation and excitement. They were ready to enter the Kingdom of Heaven and celebrate the Feast with their Bridegroom Jesus. But then, days, weeks, months, and years went by, and no Bridegroom. After a while, they began to resume their work-a-day lives, going to work, preparing meals, caring for their families, building homes and churches, still waiting, still watching, but not as fervently or expectantly as before. And, as years turned into decades and centuries and millennia, many stopped watching and waiting altogether. They became the scoffers St. Peter warned us about last Sunday saying, “Scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” Neither are you and I immune to such thoughts and emotions. Some days we act as scoffers, as though we do not believe that Jesus is coming, as though we do believe that this life and world is all there is. Therefore, Jesus encourages, exhorts, and warns us still, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
All ten virgins were invited. All ten virgins were in. All ten virgins had oil in their lamps, burning brightly. All ten virgins were on their way to the Wedding Feast to meet the Bridegroom. But, when the Bridegroom was delayed, all ten virgins fell asleep. We are all tempted, spiritually speaking, to succumb to weariness and sleep. It’s hard to wait and watch perpetually with hopeful expectation. Even Jesus’ closest disciples failed to wait and watch, and they fell asleep while He prayed in Gethsemane. Whereas Jesus most likely has in mind spiritual slumber – preoccupation with fleshly, worldly, and material concerns, idolatry – another possible interpretation of sleep is death. All ten virgins died, and all ten virgins rose up when “at midnight there was a cry” and the Bridegroom arrived. Either way, it is clear that falling asleep was not the gravest problem for the virgins, but not having extra oil. Jesus says that five of the virgins were wise, and that five of the virgins were foolish. What made the five wise virgins wise was that they brought extra oil with them as they went to meet the Bridegroom.
Once again, I must emphasize the fact that all ten virgins had oil, that all ten virgins were invited, were in, were on their way to the Wedding feast – they were all baptized Christians, purchased in the blood of Jesus. All ten virgins fell asleep. They grew weary in their watching and waiting, or perhaps they died. However, when the Bridegroom arrived, they all rose up and tended to their lamps. That is when a distinction is made: Five virgins are said to be wise because they brought extra oil. All of this begs the question, of course, “What, then, is the oil, and how do we get it?”
Well, whereas I’ve heard and considered many answers to that question, the only one that really seems to work, that is the most supported by the Church’s interpretation throughout the ages, that is consistent with the witness and teaching of Holy Scripture, is that the oil is faith. While faith is something that can be measured to a certain extent – the Scriptures speak of great faith, little faith, faith like a mustard seed, etc. – any amount of faith in Christ at all receives justification, the fullness of all of Christ’s benefits, and the kingdom of heaven: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” Therefore, it is not a question of how much faith you have, but rather, that you have it, that you have faith, period. The five foolish virgins had faith as they made their way to the Wedding Feast. However, when the Bridegroom was delayed, over time they ran out. In contrast, the five wise virgins, who also ran out of faith so to speak, brought extra with them, which enabled them to abide the time of the Bridegroom’s delay. So, if the oil is faith, the question is still begged, “How and where do you get it?”
First most, it is clear that the faith of another Christian cannot help you. No, you must have faith for yourself. Thus, the five wise virgins could not share their oil, their faith, with the five foolish virgins. Still, just having faith at one time or another is not sufficient, but you must remain in faith, so you must be sustained in faith until Jesus’ returns. St. Paul describes this truth in terms of a foot race, “Run the race in such a way that you may obtain the prize.” Those runners who stop midway and do not cross the finish line receive no prize. Consequently, in this race, all who cross the finish line, all who endure and persevere in faith until the end, win the prize, life eternal in the kingdom of heaven. And so, this parable is Jesus’ encouragement, exhortation, and even a warning to maintain and strengthen, to preserve and to keep your faith alive and shining with light until He returns. And, where and how do you do that? You do that by doing what you are doing right now – by receiving the Lord’s gifts in Word and Sacrament. These are your true food, your true bread and meat and drink throughout your earthly lives which forgive, renew, nourish, strengthen, sustain, equip, and send you as the light of Christ in a world of darkness until He comes. The Holy Spirit first filled the lamp of your body and soul when you were baptized and first believed – just like little Brinley, Griffin, Tobin, and Ellianna Saturday evening. Then, throughout your life, the Holy Spirit continues to nurture and strengthen and preserve you in faith throughout your life, even today, here in Christ’s Church with His Word of forgiveness and His lifegiving and sustaining body and blood. The faith created in you, you made confession of before God and men, just as Heather is about to do, when you were Confirmed in faith whether as a youth or as an adult. Yet, Confirmation is not graduation, but the beginning of a fuller participation in the life and ministry of Christ’s body, the Church, both within these walls and, even moreso, outside of these walls in your Spirit-given vocations. Which brings us to yet another important teaching in this parable – works.
The purpose of a lamp is shine forth light and lighten paths and rooms so that you do not stumble, so that others do not stumble in the darkness. The people of Israel were called and chosen and elect to be Light for the Gentiles. You too have been called, chosen, and elect that you might be the Light of Christ in a world of darkness – “For once you were darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord. Walk, therefore, as children of Light. That is why Brinley, Tobin, Griffin, and Ellianna were given burning candles with these words: “Receive this burning light to show that you have received Christ who is the Light of the world. Live always in the Light of Christ, and be ever watchful for His coming, that you may meet Him with Joy and enter with Him into the marriage feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom, which shall have no end.” You keep your lamps full of oil, shining forth with the Light of Christ in good works and deeds which serve others and glorify God, showing that you are Christians by your love for one another and for all.
Still, Jesus’ encouragement, exhortation, and warning to remain full of the oil of faith and good works remains, for the day of His return will come on an unknown day and hour, and those whose lamps are shining forth with the Light of faith and works will enter the Wedding Feast with their Bridegroom Jesus, but those whose lamps have gone out, who have no more faith, will find themselves outside the gates of the Wedding Hall where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. And, there will be nowhere to obtain the oil of faith and rekindle their light, for the Church will be closed, its purpose fulfilled and complete. Though they cry and plead at the gates, the Lord will say to them, “I never knew you,” for the Lord knows His people by their faith, faith that is shown to be living by good works and love.
The extra oil is needed NOW in this life. We must never think that we have enough and become complacent and content, but we must be vigilant in maintaining and sustaining our faith. Therefore, O Christian, do not delay in repentance or in receiving the gifts of Christ that strengthen and sustain your faith. Rather, embrace them often, and receive them with thanksgiving. For, through Word and Sacraments the Church fills Her lamp full with the oil of faith and trust in the Lord, that She will be ready to receive her Bridegroom when He comes again in glory. O Lord, preserve us in faith in You and make us ever to hunger and thirst for Your righteousness. Make us to shine with your True Light in our lives, words, and deeds to the glory of God our Father, through Jesus Christ our Redeemer, in His most Holy Spirit our Sanctifier and Sustainer.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.